7 things I learned about running a successful content business
by Jenni Gritters
In March 2018, I lost my job. It’s a tale as old as time for journalists: My company decided to reorganize and focus less on outdoor related products, which I was writing about at the time. In the end, six of us lost our jobs. A woman from HR delivered the news by reading an emotion-less paragraph from a piece of paper during a video call. And just like that, I entered the layoffs club.
I spent some time tending to my wounds, collecting severance checks, going on long runs and hikes around the Pacific Northwest, and applying for jobs. Eventually, I started to go into Seattle’s offices to interview for a variety of jobs: engagement consultant, philanthropy writer, science editor, managing editor. But after each interview, I walked out feeling unenthusiastic and burnt out.
I realized eventually that I didn’t want another 9–5 job, and I especially didn’t want another journalism job. I didn’t trust that I wouldn’t be laid off again, and each newsroom I walked into seemed to have the same problems — no money, exhausted employees and bad management.
In the end, after many weeks of counseling, a come-to-Jesus trip to Hawaii to stay in a friend’s surf shack by the beach, and a whole journal’s worth of pro and con lists, I decided to take a gamble and launch my own content business. I’d worked as a freelance journalist between jobs in the past but it was always just a side hustle or a way to get me through the next few months. This time it would be different — I wanted to make this work for the long haul.
And wow, did it work.
Year One by the Numbers
I launched my business, ZEST Storycraft LLC, in June 2018, exactly a year ago, in June 2018. Here’s what year one looked like:
- Clients: 25
- Total income: $129,364
- Total profit (income minus expenses): $120,482
- Paid stories written: 83
- Writing workshops taught: 3
- Consistent writing coaching clients: 3
- Vacations taken: 5 week-long trips; 15+ weekend trips
I didn’t work on Fridays for most of my first year, which was a goal I set when I first started my business. Instead, I used those days to work on personal projects, catch up with friends, and spend time outside.
During the last year, I became a regular contributor at mindbodygreen, the REI Co-op Journal and Experience magazine. I took over The Health Diaries, a column that runs in Medium’s Elemental Magazine every week. I started reporting in the field again and found the writing voice I thought I’d lost after years of only writing product reviews and viral content.
I learned to say no to work I didn’t like. I upped my hiking game and outdoor skills, had a story published in The Guardian, bought a new car, moved into a nicer apartment, and perhaps most importantly, I found a work-life balance I used to think was impossible.
Most weeks, I worked from 10am to 4pm Monday to Thursday, with some random emailing outside of those hours. That means I worked about 25–30 hours per week. I primarily wrote about health, wellness and the outdoors, which are topics I’m extremely passionate about in my own life. My favorite stories included an investigation into the mental health of Instagram influencers, and a look at the fraught #VanLife trend.
My clients have varied from PATH (a massive global health nonprofit based in downtown Seattle), to the University of Washington, to Headspace. In the past year, I have worked as a writer, editor, coach, teacher, project manager and copywriter, all with varying levels of joy.
I have worked for big brands and big newsrooms, tiny brands and tiny newsrooms. I even taught yoga and meditation, then realized it was stressful and time consuming, and paid almost nothing — so I let it go for a bit.
How Did I Make This Happen?
Over the past year, I’ve learned a lot of things about running your own six-figure content business. Here are a few of the highlights:
1. You’re running a business
Freelance creatives often make the mistake of thinking about their craft and their art before they think about their business. But if you’re working for yourself, you’re running a small business.
The best thing I did was become an LLC early on, because this meant I stopped thinking of freelancing as a side hustle and started thinking of it as my new career path. When I speak to my clients and sign contracts with them, I’m speaking to them from one business to another.
My business provides writing and editing services to companies and publications that focus on healthy living. This mindset trickles down to influence every other decision I make.
2. Set up your finances right from the start
During month one, I read a great book, The Money Book for Freelancers, and immediately adopted all of their methods. I have a business checking account where I get my paychecks, and then I also have a matrix of savings accounts with a high interest online bank. When I get paid, I immediately pull 25% of that money and put it into a ‘self employment taxes’ savings account.
At the end of the month, I pay myself a paycheck into the checking account I share with my husband. We have an emergency savings account, a ‘someday we want to buy a house’ savings account, and a small travel fund. And I also invest a bit of money into a ROTH IRA each year, since I’m no longer part of an employer-sponsored retirement plan.
All of this stuff matters so much when you’re running a freelance business, because paychecks ebb and flow. I was able to make as much as I did because I had this system set up from the outset. I also use Quickbooks, which is great for managing invoices, reminding clients of outstanding payments, tracking expenses, and producing profit and loss sheets each month.
3. Define ‘success’ for yourself
When I started ZEST, I looked at how much I needed to make each month to match my old paycheck. That became my goal for each month — to bring in $6,000. I quickly learned that I could pull in more work than that though, so I upped the number to $8,000.
I now bring in between $8,000-$10,000 of work on average each month, and I reach out to my network about six weeks ahead of when I can see that I might run out of work. This helps me maintain stability and gives me a sense for what’s coming down the pike. It also helps to have a goal in mind — when I’ve met that $8,000/month goal, I can relax!
Success for me is also about more than money, though. I was burnt the hell out after my past few media jobs, and if I was going to work for myself I wanted to work less and go outside more. Thus, I also measured my success based on if I was able to take a slow Friday at least twice per month, if I could go on weekday hikes with my husband, and if I was enjoying myself most days.
4. Find a community
I joined The Riveter, a female-forward coworking space in Seattle, fairly early on in my freelancing journey. And thank goodness for that place! I’ve worked from home for the past five years and while I love working from home a few times per week, I quickly start to get into my own head.
Being at an office gives me a reason to wear real pants, present myself as a professional, have good conversations, and learn from other people. I joined lots of support and skill-based groups at my office and my days there are still my most productive and most enjoyable. Isolation is a scary beast — get yourself out into the world and connect with other people who are passionate. It helps.
5. Trust the red flags
This past year hasn’t been all roses and butterflies. If I’m honest, it was also a lot of trial and error. I often set lofty goals for publications I wanted to work for, or types of work I thought I might like — but when it came down to it, those jobs and publications weren’t always a good fit for me!
At first, I simply said yes to any gig that came my way, red flags be damned. But after a few months of late payments, messy management structures, and emails at all hours, I realized that I needed to take a step back.
Now, I evaluate every potential gig before I say yes or no to it. Does it fit with my mission? Is it a topic I like? Has the person been straightforward, responsive and helpful over email thus far? If the answer is no, no amount of money is worth that job. Saying no is tough, but I’m getting better at it.
6. Always negotiate for what you’re worth
A lot of people ask how the hell I made this much as a writer. And the answer is that I only say yes to jobs that pay me what I think I deserve. When I started my business, I calculated my hourly rate.
I took my desired yearly salary, divided it down into an hourly rate, then added 20% to compensate for the taxes I’d have to pay. Usually, that maps out to a minimum of $50/hour (although I often make much more than that, depending on the client and project). Most of my projects are paid based on a project fee, but I use an hourly rate and an estimate of how long the story will take to come up with that amount.
Here are some examples: When I work on product reviews, I typically charge $1,500 per guide, considering that it will probably take me about 30 hours or less to finish. When I write science news stories, I sometimes make as little as $50 per story — but that’s fine, because the stories take me about 45 minutes to report and write. I’m still making $50/hour.
If someone offers me an assignment below my usual rate, I always negotiate. I once had someone offer me $200 for a 2,000-word reported feature story that would take me about 20 hours to report and write. I asked for more, they said no, and that was the end of that. I pitched some other ideas to other pubs and landed an assignment that paid (a lot) more within a few days.
Just to say it, this strategy requires bravery and trust in the fact that more work will come your way. I’ve become more confident over time but it’s a practice that takes a while to get used to. However, I believe that holding your sacred ground and asking for what you deserve is the only way to make this much, even if it’s scary as hell.
7. Boundaries and transparency matter
I used to be afraid to tell my clients about my rules. I was worried that they’d judge me for my lack of availability on Fridays, or my near constant traveling. If I was gone a lot, would they keep offering me work? But then I realized that I needed to be clear about my rules, rather than being evasive — and once I started talking to my clients about my plans, I found that they were incredibly supportive.
Now, when I go offline for a week every quarter, I set an out of office reminder that explains my hunt for work-life balance, and people are fascinated by it. Be the change you wish to see, and all that!
It’s been a wild year, but it’s also been the best year of my working life. When I started this business, I told myself that it would be an experiment. After all, the full time jobs would always be there — and if I couldn’t make enough money after three months, I’d go back to the newsroom grind. But three months turned into six months, and at some point I realized that I’d probably never go back to a ‘normal’ job.
In the past year, I made nearly double what I was making at my old job, while working 30 hours per week and taking almost every Friday off. I went on some spectacular vacations, including a dreamy stay at a resort in Bermuda and a camper van trip down the Oregon Coast. I hiked nearly every week, settled into a slower pace of life, invested in therapy, developed a newfound confidence in myself, wrote many stories that I’m proud of, and proved that when I set my mind to something, I can make it work.
What’s next? Year two is all about maintaining this steady pace, making six figures again, continuing to spend lots of time outside, and pushing myself to work with new publications on even more challenging stories. Bring it on.
Notes from the Honeypot editors
We loved this story by Jenni for two reasons: we want to be taught how to be successful by those who have a proven track record. Jenni shows her numbers and that is very valuable to create an aspirational benchmark. Secondly, she mentions a few sources that we didn’t know and thought worthy to share. We already earmarked the book she mentioned. Follow the links :-). Dear Jenni: we wish you a successful 2020.